Book review

In ‘A Legacy of Spies’, Smiley (and John le Carré) offer the world view of the disillusioned spy

Arguably the last George Smiley novel, it doesn’t provide the closure readers may have been looking for.

All stories need closure.

John le Carré’s A Legacy of Spies tries to offer just that closure to the story of the second-most famous fictional spy of the 20th century, George Smiley. The Smiley of the books is an intelligence officer with the British overseas intelligence agency, popularly referred to as the “Circus,” in le Carré’s novels, and largely based on the MI6.

This is the ninth le Carré book in which Smiley makes an appearance, the first in 27 years, and possibly the last one. Smiley made his debut in le Carré’s 1961 book, Call for the Dead, which also happened to be his first. But the book that made both le Carré and Smiley famous was The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, published in 1963.

A new perspective

A Legacy of Spies is narrated by Peter “Pierre” Guillam, who happened to be Smiley’s right hand man. Guillam is living a retired life in Brittany, France and receives a letter one day from his former employer, the Circus (now called the Box) to make himself available at the headquarters in London. An old failed operation from the early 1960s has come to light again, and some questions need to be asked. Like any good spy, Guillam first tries to lie, to hide what had happened, to protect Smiley and everyone else who used to work with them.

Given that the lawyers of the Box can’t find Smiley, it is Guillam who’s in the dock and needs to talk about how Operation Windfall went all wrong. At the same time, the Box is being threatened by the descendants of a few long dead spies with a lawsuit.

The lawyers at the Box have enough evidence against Guillam. He must start talking. Of failure to hide things, Guillam says:

“When you’re cornered, when you’ve tried all the tricks in your locker and they haven’t worked, there aren’t many ways left to wriggle. You can spin the story within the story. I’d done that, and it hadn’t worked. You can try a partial hangout and hope it ends there. I’d done that too, but it hadn’t ended there. So you accept that you’ve reached the end of the road, and the only option left to you is be bold, tell the truth, or as little as you can get away with, and earn a few Brownie points for being a good boy.” 

This paragraph shows that the beauty of le Carré’s prose remains intact. And on a totally different note, it also reminds us of the times that we live in, telling us how universal le Carré’s writing is. The Cold War is long dead and gone, but not le Carré’s writing.

Once Guillam starts talking, the story keeps going back and forth between the present and the past, through the use of official documents and Guillam’s monologue. In doing this, le Carré builds a link with his 1963 classic The Spy Who Came in from the Cold. (It is highly recommended that first time le Carré readers read this book before reading A Legacy of Spies.)

He is in superb form here when it comes to the detailing of that era and describing the double and triple bluffs that Smiley specialised in. In this back story, a whole host of Circus characters like Bill Haydon, Percy Alleline and Jim Prideaux make an appearance. Of course, there is Smiley himself and Karla, the Russian spymaster, whose real name is never revealed.

John le Carré
John le Carré

Where is Smiley?

The funny thing is that, though the entire book moves around Smiley, he is never really there. This reminded me of Govind Nihalani’s 1984 film Party, based on a play written by Mahesh Elkunchwar, where the main character, whom every other character is talking about, is never really there.

Guillam finally manages to locate Smiley sitting in a reading room in Freiburg. And before he goes to meet Smiley he asks himself:

“How much of our human feeling can we dispense with in the name of freedom, would you say, before we cease to feel either human or free? Or were we simply suffering from the incurable English disease of needing to play the world’s game when we weren’t world players any more?” 

By now, the mystery of Operation Windfall has taken a backseat and the Guillam is looking for closure. Why did they do what they did? And was leading the life that he did really worth it? The trouble is that by the time he meets Smiley in a “red pullover and bright-yellow corduroys,” an outfit he has never seen Smiley wear before, having seen him in only bad suits, his questions have taken a backseat.

Over dinner le Carré – oops, Smiley – asks Guillam, was all the spying really worth the trouble, given the world that we have ended up creating? As he says:

“We were not pitiless, Peter. We were never pitiless. We had the larger pity. Arguably, it was misplaced. Certainly it was futile. We know that now. We did not know it then.” 

Smiley asks:

“For world peace, whatever that is? Yes, yes, of course…Was it all in the great name of capitalism? God forbid. Christendom? God forbid again…Was it all for England, then?... There was a time, of course there was. But whose England? Which England? England all alone, a citizen of nowhere?”

And then he concludes:

“I’m a European, Peter…If I had a mission – if I was ever aware of one beyond our business with the enemy, it was to Europe. If I was heartless, I was heartless for Europe.”

This is possibly le Carré’s last word, voiced through his most famous character, George Smiley. Of course, this is a potshot that he has taken at Brexit and the entire nativist rhetoric drummed up by the British politicians. And it does not give the closure that the readers might have possibly been looking for.

But what it does tell us is that le Carré has ended up a disillusioned old man, like his main character, Smiley. This disillusionment at the end doesn’t take away anything from the nearly six decades of entertainment that he gave us. No one can take that away from him.
Thank you for all the pleasure, David John Moore Cornwell!

A Legacy of Spies, John le Carré, Penguin Books

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